A full plate
Nathan Myhrvold phones me at 11.30pm Hong Kong time precisely, which makes it 8.30am in Seattle, in the United States, where he was born and now lives. In the very unlikely event that I were ever a billionaire, as Myhrvold is, I'd live a life of leisure, so I apologise for getting him up this early for an interview.
'Oh no, I've been up since 6am,' he says, cheerfully. 'For the last couple of weeks, I've been writing research papers on dinosaurs - they'll be printed in a scientific journal. Actually, I was really excited to wake up this morning - I wanted to see if a computer program I wrote before I went to bed last night worked, so the first thing I did was to check it. It was a computer program on dinosaurs - I wanted to check the data on them.'
Few of us write computer programs for pleasure - and especially not as a way to relax before going to bed. And Myhrvold is a self-taught palaeontologist, although he has degrees in many other scientific fields. (Since he turned his eye to dinosaurs, in 1996, he and palaeontologist Jack Horner, technical adviser for the Jurassic Park films, have unearthed nine Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons; before that, only 18 had been found. Myhrvold's home features a full-size T-rex cast.)
Myhrvold started college at the age of 14 and by the time he was 23, had multiple degrees, including a PhD in mathematical physics and master's degrees in economics, and geophysics and space physics. Myhrvold went to Cambridge University, in Britain, to work with physicist Stephen Hawking on a quantum theory of gravitation. He then took a leave of absence to work with friends on a software project.
Their company was acquired by Microsoft, for which he became chief technology officer.
Although he could have retired comfortably - very comfortably -on the millions he received when he cashed out of Microsoft in 1999, Myhrvold continued to work. He started Intellectual Ventures, which, according to the company's website, is 'the global leader in the business of invention and owner of one of the world's largest and fastest growing patent portfolios'.
However, the reason I - and many other foodies - are interested in Myhrvold is that he's the driving force and main author behind the six-volume, 2,438-page set of books known as Modernist Cuisine - The Art and Science of Cooking, which was published in March. Despite its hefty price tag - it has a list price of US$625 (Kelly & Walsh in Pacific Place, Admiralty, sells it for HK$6,250) - the book sold out within a week of the initial print run of 6,000 being released. A further 25,000 copies have since been produced.
'I'm glad to be finished,' Myhrvold says of the book, which he originally thought would run to 600 pages. 'We worked on it for years and I was quite curious about what the world would think of it; until we finished and got it out there, we didn't know. I thought it was important and didn't want to work on it for 10 years only to find out that nobody was interested in it, so it's exciting to be getting feedback.'
Publication of the book was delayed several times, not just because it grew so large, but also due to packaging and shipping problems (it comes in an acrylic case and weighs more than 23kg).
Modernist Cuisine came about through a thread discussing sous vide that Myhrvold started in 2004 on online food forum eGullet. French for 'under vacuum', sous vide has been compared to 'boil in a bag' frozen food, although the ingredients come nowhere close to being boiled. Placed in a vacuum-sealed bag, the food is cooked at a precisely controlled temperature for relatively long periods of time - say 48 hours at 56 degrees Celsius for lamb shoulder, 40 hours at 62 degrees for pork belly and 2?hours at 90 degrees for glazed pearl onions. The result, if done correctly, is meat, vegetables and fruit that's cooked from the surface through to the core to a specific level of 'doneness'.
When Myhrvold became interested in sous vide, there weren't any books on the subject (now there are several). Inspired, he started compiling the information he was receiving from the eGullet thread with the intention of writing a book.
'If it weren't for eGullet, I don't think I would have done the book,' says Myhrvold, who earned Le Grand Diplome, an advanced professional certificate, at Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne in France in the mid-1990s, and, in 1991, was on a team that came in third in a world barbecue championship held in Memphis, in the US.
'I was interested in sous vide and assumed the world had it figured out and that I was ignorant, but then I found out the world hadn't figured it out and there was a lot of stuff that needed to be learned. People on eGullet found it interesting and without their encouragement and knowledge I couldn't have done it. People suggested I write the book. Originally, it was supposed to be just on sous vide, but then I realised I needed to branch out. I wrote an outline almost five years ago about what the book was going to be and, as far as content, it's close to what we produced.
'The scope didn't change but the number of pages did,' he says with a laugh.
Modernist Cuisine has forewords by two of the biggest names in the modernist-cuisine movement - Ferran Adria, of the now-closed El Bulli, in Spain (the restaurant is being turned into culinary think tank the El Bulli Foundation), and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, in Britain.
Myhrvold says he toiled alone on the book for two years before recruiting a team that included chefs Chris Young, who has degrees in biochemistry and mathematics, and Maxime Bilet, who are named as co-authors. Both chefs have worked in Blumenthal's experimental kitchen, where they helped to develop techniques and dishes.
Very few of the recipes in Modernist Cuisine are for dishes that can be made on the spur of the moment, with ingredients found at the back of the fridge. It's not so much that the recipes rely on unusual ingredients - although there are many in the book that aren't easy to find - it's more that the cooking requires specialist equipment, such as a sous vide machine, a centrifugal juicer, a rotor-stator homogeniser and a chamber-style vacuum sealer.
'I have a very well-equipped kitchen,' says Myhrvold. 'For all the things I cook [at home], I use Modernist Cuisine [techniques] in one way or another, like when I make breakfast. With scrambled eggs, they're typically cooked over very high heat and you have to be precise. I mix the eggs and cook them in a combi oven - you just put the food in there and set the timer - it's a convenient way to cook.
'You don't need the equipment, but it's easier to cook that way than without it. A lot of techniques in the book depend on accurate control of temperature; if you can control that, you can cook well - you can't overcook or undercook, and that winds up being pretty important.'
To demonstrate that the recipes work, Myhrvold and his team hold dinner parties at his home, each time cooking for about a dozen chefs and food writers.
'We do about two a month. We don't have a restaurant so this is a way of establishing our credibility - people are wondering, does the food [from the book] taste good? [Chef] Thomas Keller came once and liked his meal so much, he asked all of his chefs to come to dinner. A food critic from Germany is coming, and one from the UK. It's a 30-course tasting menu.
'Yesterday, we made a tomato cream - it's tomato water with olive oil. Usually with tomato water, you let it drip [through a filter] but we use the centrifuge, then we homogenise it with olive oil. Dairy cream is milk fat in water - it's homogenised together but it comes out of the cow that way, with protein to stabilise it. We make a constructed cream - take any fat and any liquid and homogenise it, so with tomato water and olive oil, you can make a cream. It's actually creamless, but from a textural perspective, it's cream. It tastes intensely of olives and tomatoes - and it's vegan.'
If this makes the book sound as though it would be inaccessible to the average home cook, that's because it almost certainly is. Someone whose cooking is limited to making burgers from supermarket minced beef is unlikely to attempt the Modernist Cuisine mushroom Swiss burger. In addition to making your own buns, the recipe calls for the preparation of smoked lettuce, reconstructed Emmental slices, freeze-dried shiitake mushrooms and compressed tomatoes, and involves grinding a mixture of short ribs, aged rib-eye and hanger steak. Estimated time from start to finish: 30 hours. Puffed cockscombs, autoclaved onion soup and fruit carbonated with dry ice and centrifuged may also be a stretch.
As with any good cookbook, Modernist Cuisine is more useful for its ideas, techniques and information than for specific recipes, not all of which are as involved or time-consuming as those mentioned above. No other 'cookbook' pays so much attention to food-borne illnesses and food safety. Modernist Cuisine contains colour photographs of highly magnified bacteria, such as E coli, clostridium botulinum and clostridium perfringens, that look more beautiful than they do deadly.
Other pictures in the book are just as fascinating (Myhrvold took many of them; one of his hobbies is photography). Using industrial tools, the Modernist Cuisine team cut through equipment such as pots and pans (with the food inside), a controlled-vapour oven, a microwave oven and a pressurised deep fryer, to demonstrate the inner workings of each item, and to show what food looks like as it's being cooked.
For all of the book's scope, 'there were tons of things we wanted to include [but couldn't],' says Myhrvold. 'Baking, pastry and desserts, so we may do another book.
'We covered Western cuisine thoroughly and some Chinese cuisine, but you can't comprehensively cover Chinese cuisine - there are too many flavours and ingredients. One of the people working on the book was Johnny Zhu - he's Chinese-American. He used to work for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] in New York, so his professional training is mostly Western, but he knows Asian cuisine, too. We put in some of his mother's recipes, and we have Thai recipes, and an amazing recipe for laksa. We feel strongly that any cuisine from around the world is worthy of attention, including some that are not considered fine dining.
'Anything you cook is worthy of making it the best you can.'
The only time Myhrvold is stumped is when he's asked if there's anything he can't do.
'Sometimes, I'm concentrating so much on what I'm doing that I forget to do things, or I'm late,' he offers.
Can he dance?
He bursts into laughter. 'That's it, I can't dance! I'm completely disastrous at dancing. And I'm not athletic. But things scientific and electronic I can do reasonably well.
'Maybe I'll develop more before it's time,' he says, reflecting on what he has achieved. 'I've done business and computing. I was involved in Microsoft; I was thrilled to be able to contribute to how we use computers. It was a good time, working for Bill Gates and figuring out how computers should work.
'I've loved cooking my whole life, but, realistically speaking, I won't start a restaurant and become a great chef. But I could do a book that no one else is likely to make. I'm proud of the cookbook. It's a team effort, so it's not the same as something you do by yourself.
'I do a lot of inventions and file quite a few patents every year, including [one for a product to combat] malaria - I'm proud of those. On the other hand, I can take pride in creating a team and bringing people together.
'I've enjoyed food so much that this is my way of contributing. Modernist Cuisine is my contribution to the world of cooking.'